It’s that time of year when we’re waking up in the morning and almost expecting to start the day feeling a little run down. Between the holiday madness, the colder temperatures, cold and flu season and the emergence of the latest COVID variant, it’s more important than ever to give our immunity some much-needed love.
Let’s begin with a quick explainer on the immune system: It’s a complex network of organs, tissues, cells and antibodies that serves to protect the body from infection. When the immune system is healthy, it’s primed and ready to attack any type of foreign invader (bacteria, virus, pathogen, parasite) that crosses its path.
However, when the immune system is weakened, it’s not as capable of fighting off germs. As a result, the body signals us to let us know something is wrong. These signals can be anything from feeling sluggish, to coming down with a bad cold, recovering slowly from a wound or being diagnosed with a more troublesome condition.
The promising news is that there are a number of holistic ways to recharge the body’s defense system. Yes, vitamin C is a biggie. Consuming foods that are packed with this antioxidant (oranges, grapefruit, kiwi, strawberries, broccoli, tomato juice, and red and green peppers, to name a few!) have been shown to help reduce the length and severity of the common cold, reduce inflammation and support your skin’s barrier—the body’s first line of defense. Yet there are other vital nutrients and essential lifestyle strategies that can strengthen your immunity during the upcoming winter season.
Read on for five simple ways you can keep your immune system healthy and strong this season.
5 Easy Steps to Stronger Immunity
This is the kind of fungi you want in your life! After all, mushrooms offer two types of B vitamins: Riboflavin (an antioxidant which encourages the immune system to function properly) and niacin (which bolsters the immune system by reducing inflammation in the lungs). Plus, this tasty meat substitute provides selenium, another antioxidant, and copper, an essential nutrient that helps the body produce red blood cells and maintain immunity.
One study published in the Journal of the American College of Nutrition discovered that cooked shiitake mushrooms—a dark colored, earthly-flavored mushroom that is used in traditional Chinese medicine—could enhance the immune system.
If you love stir-fry meals, try making this Sauteed Shiitake Mushrooms with Ginger and Watercress. For a savory snack, whip up these Stuffed Mushrooms with Broccoli Rabe and Farro.
A flavonoid (a colorful phytonutrient compound) found in numerous fruits and vegetables, research has been uncovering the multiple benefits of quercetin, including its antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties. One recent review published in the journal Food Science & Nutrition reported that quercetin was shown in both animal and lab studies to inhibit various viral infections—one being COVID.
Get Your Vitamin D
When the days are shorter during the winter months, your body is likely lacking in the sunshine vitamin … which means your immunity could take a hit. According to one study published in the journal Nutrients, a research team from Belgium concluded that there’s an “indisputable relation between vitamin D and the immune system.” The Food Science & Nutrition review also noted that this fat-soluble vitamin (which the body naturally produces when the skin is exposed to sunlight) has been shown to reduce the risk of viral diseases.
Keep in mind that vitamin D can only be found in select foods, such as fatty fish (like salmon, tuna and mackerel, all of which are loaded with anti-inflammatory omega-3s), egg yolks and fortified beverages and cereals. While it’s highly unlikely to suffer from toxic levels of vitamin D (a 10-year study of more than 20,300 adults found that only one patient dealt with clinical toxicity), a vitamin D supplement can interact with certain medications, so check with your physician before taking the over-the-counter form.
Sweating it out can actually help your immune system run smoothly. The National Institutes of Health’s Medline Plus lays out a few possible theories as to why regular exercise may be an effective way to support immunity.
It’s been speculated that working out may aid the lungs and airways by flushing out bacteria. It can also cause positive changes in antibody levels and white blood cell count (these cells belong to the immune system to help fight infection), and may help the body ward off bacterial growth.
It’s no secret that physical activity has the ability to lower stress hormones, and studies indicate that chronic stress can lead to elevated inflammation levels, ultimately wreaking havoc on immune function. So whether you prefer stepping onto the yoga mat or bouncing around in a HIIT workout, your sweat session can make you stronger—both on the outside and inside.
And speaking of ways to lower cortisol levels, better known as the stress hormone, consider becoming more mindful. A comprehensive review published in the Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences found possible links between mindfulness meditation and certain markers connected with inflammation and cell-mediated immunity (a type of immune response that does not involve antibodies).